The Long Goodbye to Carburetors: why we mourn, and why we must move on

It’s a well-flogged debate among motorheads: Carburetors or Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI)? They both accomplish the same job: that is, shuttling fuel and air into the engine, where explosions and other wonderful things happen to keep your wheels spinning. To some, it doesn’t matter as much as other factors like machine power, price and aesthetics, but oh boy, it’s a decision that can really make a difference to your entire riding experience.

Cherie Tan Anyhowly DR650

Story and visuals by: Cherie ‘Anyhowly’ Tan


Like motorcyclists the world over, we’ve always enjoyed the luxury of choice – up until two weeks ago, when the Singapore government dropped draconian new laws that lit the funeral pyre for nearly all carbureted motorcycles on our roads.

Justifying my carburetor bias

Actually, carburetors (affectionately, “carbs”) have been on their way out for more than three decades, ever since motorcycle manufacturers began introducing more sophisticated fuel injection systems in the 1980s. Despite being called archaic, good ol’ carbs have kept their diehard fans over the years.

Carbs stand the test of time because of their cheap, reliable, fixable simplicity.

XR250r simple carburetor
It’s true, some lawnmowers are more sophisticated than this motorcycle.

Let me just come out and say this: I have serious trust issues with electronics. Mostly because things that are more complicated than I am make me nervous. Especially when I travel.

carburetor how it works

Electronic Fuel Injection how it works

I began my motorcycling journey with carbs, went EFI, then back again to carbs. Today, both bikes in my stable are carbureted, air-cooled, single-cylinder models – any simpler and they’d be goats: just put grass in at one end and steer in the opposite direction of the poop.

Sure, carbs demand a little more routine maintenance and tinkering than EFI systems, but most of their problems can be tackled with simple tools or the Russian method*. Dirty fuel causing a clogged jet? Remove and clean your carb. Water in your tank? Drain your carb. Dead battery? Push start your bike, since it doesn’t need fancy electronics to fire up. Most carbureted motorcycles also allow easy access to external fuel filters and spark plugs, so even those are less vexing to troubleshoot. (*The Russian method involves either beating a thing into submission, or until it dies. Gummy petrol flow? Try whacking your carb’s float bowl to free the floater.)

Even if you can’t tear apart your carb and service it by yourself (I can’t), chances are you’ll be able to find someone nearby who knows how to.

DR650 carburetor cleaning DIY
Chris, nomad handyman extraordinaire, demonstrating how to clean a clogged carb using petrol and a scavenged plastic bag, in a bullet-ridden neighbourhood of Sarajevo, Bosnia.

If you plan to take your motorcycle to the remote armpits of the universe, where fuel quality tends toward wretched, I can’t stress enough how vital serviceability is. You see, EFI works well until the point where it doesn’t, then you are pretty much fucked. Clogged fuel injector? Good luck finding an EFI-skilled mechanic AND new components in Uzbekistan!

DR650 DIY motorcycle repair
“Sorry madam, no motorcycle repair shop in this city. Want to buy a camel?”

 

EFI is complicated and expensive, but better, just like your new girlfriend

In an arcane system that is both devilishly complex and simple at the same time, the gist of it is: little nozzles spray petrol into the engine whenever a computer tells them to.

The computer (ECU, really), fuel pump, injectors and sensors for a million consequential things like throttle position, air pressure, air flow plus temperature, all make up a fantastic feedback loop that automatically adjusts and controls the precise mixture of fuel and air being fed into the engine, across varying temperatures, altitudes and fuel octanes. God, that was a mouthful.

This electronic voodoo results in smoother throttle response and a motorcycle that runs consistently well on a high mountain pass and on subzero mornings – no need for pulling on chokes, warming up the engine, or carb jet adjustments – just turn the key and go! In contrast, a carbureted engine gets wheezy at altitude and is cranky to fire up in the cold.

Also if you’re the sort that lets your motorcycle lie down alot (happens when you get off-tarmac), you’ll discover that gravity-fed carbs don’t work well at funny angles. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for EFI though, so if you’ve got one of those newer models, go ahead with as much bike yoga as you want.

flooded carburetor XR250 dirtbike
Hands up, those who’ve ever vomited in their helmet while trying to kick-start with a flooded carb and fouled spark plug.

So, EFI makes a motorcyclist’s life easier. But what truly damns carbs is this: EFI may cost our wallets, but carbs cost the environment. Fuel injection systems are sealed, so they don’t allow unburnt pollutants to escape in the way carbs do. Carbs also unleash a fair bit more tailpipe emissions because of their imprecise systems.

There’s also the issue of a bio-fuelled future. Made from plant materials, ethanol is the next big renewable fuel star. It’s also cheaper and less toxic than other octane boosters, so in the long-term, ethanol is likely to win at the pump. China has decreed that by 2020, all vehicular petrol must contain at least 10% of it. E20 and E85 gasohol have already been default offerings at Thailand’s petrol stations, and in Brazil, ethanol currently makes up a quarter of what you feed your tank.

The problem is, nasty things happen when new fuel meets old school. Ethanol hates carbs! It eats up their metal, plastic and rubber parts, and engine performance suffers because the fixed air-fuel mixture simply cannot account for the extra oxygen in ethanol. To stay in step with evolving requirements for a greener earth, we’d eventually have to make the switch to modern engine systems.

Like it or not, EFI is the future. Plus, I have to grudgingly admit that, for every horror story I hear about somebody’s motoadventure being cut short by catastrophic EFI failure, there are many more testimonies to the reliability of modern EFI motorcycles. I suppose there will be worse abominations ahead for Luddites like me to shake our fists at (self-righting motorcycles, really??)

In some ways, this essay is a clumsy attempt to unpack why the end of the carb era breaks my heart. Over the years I’ve come to equate carb motorcycles with economical timelessness and a more intimate motorcycling experience. There are lighter, sleeker, faster and more powerful motorcycles than mine, but i love my imprecise, farty old carbs for their charming customizability and larger margin for rider self-sufficiency. Idling screws, choke levers, plastic tubes and cable ties – these little things make my motorcycle feel more like a collaborator than a tool. These days, new motorcycles seem to hit the roads in a singular army of sameness, high on performance but low in personality.

I have a massive appreciation for craftsmanship, and I mourn the dying heritage and artistry of carb tuning. I can’t do it, but then you don’t have to be Gordon Ramsay to relish a killer Rendang. I’d wager vintage motorcycle collectors feel the same.

To policy makers high in their ivory tower, such sentiment must seem like yet another frivolous working-class affliction. Why tolerate the dwindling carb numbers when you can exterminate them all with careless rhetoric and autocratic finality? Oh, and about motorcycling culture and heritage? Feeble reeds before the iron bulldozer of progress.

Perhaps I listen to too much Bruce Springsteen and am overly attached to romanticized visions. Time to get over myself and grow up. Still, acknowledging the necessity for change doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it. Now I’ll just go fire up the old thumper and sulk to the sound of inevitability.

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